It was my first meeting of a men’s society of addiction treatment specialists, and my nervousness made me arrive early. Anxious questions ran the hamster wheel in my head. Would I fit in? I’m a recovery coach; would the gray conference room be filled with condescending psychiatrists and psychologists? That was my fear, anyway. The apparently humorless fellow sitting in the corner—or perhaps it was a sculpture titled Man Gazing at Smartphone—didn’t make things easier for me.
Since I was early, I grabbed the men’s room key and headed down the hallway. Maybe it would help to pee, or to splash some water on my face. I fitted the key into the men’s room door and…nothing. It wouldn’t open. Damn. Was there already someone inside? So why didn’t it have one of those “OCCUPIED” badges on the door? Regardless, I wasn’t getting in.
Well, I couldn’t just walk back into the meeting room so soon. Then I’d have to explain to Mr. Motionless that I couldn’t work a doorknob.
I decided to walk the hallway a little, see what the place was like. The meeting was taking place at the headquarters of a large outpatient center for sex addicts, and I had only been there once before and seen very little. It turned out there wasn’t much to see: a rectangle of monochrome hallways lined with office doors belonging to therapists.
I turned to head back to my meeting room when my eye caught a phrase I had never seen before. A sign mounted to the doorway of a stairwell was emblazoned, “AREA OF REFUGE.” Area of Refuge. I had no idea what that phrase meant technically, but I understood the words and I liked what I felt.
A place—maybe not even a place, just a borderless “area”—where I could feel safe. Merely walking into an area of refuge triggered feelings of calmness, serenity, safety. Given my anxiety before this meeting, I could use my own area of refuge right now. But I couldn’t open the door; there wasn’t time.
I had to handle my anxiety without visiting this new land. So instead, I fell back on techniques I already knew worked. I stood there, near the Area Of Refuge sign, and slowed my breathing. Then I prayed. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Then I murmured a couple of ad-lib affirmations.
I am a wonderful and qualified recovery coach. I have excellent social skills.
Then I tried to become mindful of the industrial carpet beneath my shoes, the over-conditioned air, and slow hushed rush of the ventilation system. I became present. My knees thawed.
A moment later, I walked back to the meeting room, where other men had begun to gather, waiting for the meeting to begin. One older gentleman in a Hawaiian shirt (he looked like Santa Claus on vacation), asked me to help him get the bagels from his car parked on the street just outside the building. He was a jolly sort (naturally, being Santa Claus on a break) and I immediately felt my spine soften. It was going to be fine.
Later at home, I remembered the phrase that had given me comfort and consulted Wikipedia.
Area of Refuge: a location in a building designed to hold occupants during a fire or other emergency, when evacuation may not be safe or possible. Occupants can wait there until rescued or relieved by firefighters. This can apply to the following:
It struck me how right this definition was for my situation. Sure, Wikipedia was talking about physical emergencies, but everyone knows there are spiritual emergencies, too. I usually have one daily.
At the addiction treatment center, I had an important meeting coming up in a strange place with strange people. Evacuation was not possible. In my job as a recovery coach I often help people who are prevented from escaping by their addiction. Sick people. People with a disability. Sometimes people who wind up in a hospital. I really did need an area of refuge at that moment.
And I found one. Right there, at the sign clearly marked “Area of Refuge,” I found mine. By slowing my breathing, praying, feeling the ground under me, I created an area where I could and did take refuge. I surrounded my spirit with safety and soon the crisis passed.
I wondered if my techniques would have been approved by the people who designed the area of refuge in that building, the experts. I read further.
An area of refuge typically has a steady supply of fresh or filtered outside air with emergency lighting. A call box is required, which can call into a central location. Yep, my area of refuge was up to spec. I had a steady supply of filtered air, right in my lungs. It was just a question of slowing and deepening my breathing to tap into it. I used my built-in call box to notify a central location: I prayed.
We all carry an area of refuge within us, waiting to be used any time a spiritual emergency arises.
A safe place within each of us where we can access fresh air, feel the solidity of the walls and floor, and even place an emergency call. It’s understandable that many of us, myself included, forget about this fantastic facility: it isn’t as clearly labeled as that in the hallway of the treatment center.
So decide right now to post a big permanent placard somewhere near you heart, your solar plexus, or your belly. Wherever you decided your area of refuge is waiting. Be sure to maintain it in pristine condition, with meditation (for the air supply), prayer (to maintain the call box) and connection to healthy friends (to keep the ground solid and insulating). Next time you have a spiritual emergency and feel that evacuation is not a possibility, don’t forget. You have immediate access to your very own Area of Refuge.
Roger Schulman, the founder of CoAchieving, is a Life Coach certified by the International Coach Federation and an Oscar® and Emmy-nominated and BAFTA-winning screenwriter. He believes we are hard-wired for narrative and that you can write a new, sober story to create a new truth -- and a new reality.
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